The market for tablet-controlled mixers is heating up. Has QSC’s new range got what it takes to fend off the competition?
Wireless digital mixers are making quite an impact at all levels on the live-sound circuit, and this new TouchMix model from QSC, available in eight- and 16-channel versions, is priced to appeal to both the gigging musician and the private PA operator. Actually, I say ’16-channel’, but this version actually has additional line-only inputs that bring the input count of the QSC TouchMix 16 up to 20. While Mackie was the first company to make inroads in this market, the QSC TouchMix is actually the result of a collaboration between QSC, Greg Mackie and Peter Watts. As I understand it, Greg wasn’t involved in the design of Mackie’s DL1608, though there are some inevitable parallels between the devices.
The QSC TouchMix 16 includes a number of innovative features to make life easier for the engineer. For example, it has both simple and advanced operating modes to help level out the learning curve, though, switching between the two modes, I could see very little if any difference in the depth of control available. It all looks pretty intuitive either way.
While remote control over Wi-Fi via an iPad is likely to be the main mode of operation, the mixer also has a built-in colour touchscreen that makes local stand-alone operation possible. So-called Wizards and preset libraries are also included to aid the less experienced operator. Wizards offer two helpful options, one for setting the input gain trims and the other for selecting suitable settings for various instrument and voice types. Note that the input trims are not adjustable over the wireless link or from on screen — you have to use the physical knobs on the mixer.
Taking a look at the hardware first, the mixer occupies around the same area as an open copy of Sound On Sound; its moulded case tapering down towards the front edge. The main outputs, six of the aux outputs and the talkback input — all on XLRs — are located on the rear panel along with the power connector, an Ethernet connector (for accessories) and two USB ports, one of which is occupied by the included USB Wi-Fi dongle, which has a range of perhaps 50 to 75 feet, depending on the location. All 16 XLR inputs are on the top panel along with their gain trim controls, and the last four are on XLR/jack combi connectors that can accept mic or line-level inputs. Six further front-panel jacks provide access to stereo inputs 17/18 and 19/20, with two more TRS jacks accessing Aux outs 7/8 and 9/10. The last two jacks are for the headphones and monitor cue outputs.
Below these are buttons for the 48V phantom power (individually selectable per channel), Standby, Wizard, Info, Aux, FX Mute, Mute Groups, Phones, Talkback and Monitor. A blue-lit rotary encoder sitting beneath five further buttons may be used for coarse or fine (push-down) parameter adjustment; four of the buttons access user settings and the fifth is a ‘zero level’ switch. The latter turns the selected control to zero when pressed.
The display is raised in its own plastic escutcheon, and three dedicated buttons access the home, menu and record/play pages. This mixer allows full multitrack recording of the show from all inputs directly to an external USB drive without the need for a computer. All this comes in a padded and lined ‘rigid bag’ which also holds the included external power supply. While I’m not a fan of external PSUs in live settings, this one at least has a sensibly rugged connector at the mixer end and a nice thick cable. However, it would have been nice for the bag to be designed to allow the mixer and PSU to be left in there during use.
All the channels include a four-band parametric EQ plus variable high-pass and low-pass filters, a gate and a compressor. Four stereo DSPs are fed from post-fader aux sends to provide a useful range of effects, plus there’s an additional automatic pitch-correction facility that can be inserted into whichever channel needs it.
All the main and aux outputs have access to third-octave graphic equalisers, separate notch filters to help minimise feedback, limiters and variable delay. The routing allows the user to set up eight DCA fader groups and eight mute groups. As expected the iPad app is a free download. Mixer firmware updates have to be downloaded separately.
In many respects the feature set is not unlike that of the Mackie 1608, other than there being more aux sends, four DSP effects engines rather than two, and additional DSP effects. Navigation is intuitive and similar to other digital consoles I’ve tried, where you can move horizontally across channels or vertically up or down the individual channel functions. If pushed I’d say the operational paradigm was not far off a cross between Behringer’s X32 iPad control software and Mackie’s DL-series mixers.
The Home button brings up the main fader screen, where tabs along the top of the screen let you jump between channels 1-8, 9-16, the stereo line inputs, the aux outputs and the DCA groups. Any channel can be routed to the cue output by touching its cue button. As the cue output is on the mixer itself, it might need to be fed into a wireless system of its own to reach the front-of-house engineer. Mute buttons are available at the bottom of each channel, but for further adjustment, including pan, you have to go to single-channel view by tapping the channel number. There are tabs at the top of the screen for accessing the EQ, compressor, gate, effects, auxes, channel presets and setup options, with arrow buttons for moving back and forth between the channels. As expected, channels may be named and complete mixer setups saved as scenes.
Adjusting the EQ and variable-frequency low- and high-cut filters is done via rotary controls on screen, though the selected value may also be adjusted using the large data wheel, which offers rather more precision. Bands one and four may be switched between parametric and shelving. Pan may also be adjusted above the channel fader in this view.
The compressor and gate are very straightforward affairs (the compressor also has a useful de-ess control) and are adjusted using screen sliders, while the effects section shows all four possible post-fade sends feeding the DSP engines. This also provides quick access to two key global effects parameters for each effect, though tapping the icon for the current effect opens up a more detailed edit page. The aux page shows all the other aux sends (10 in all), which can be switched pre- or post-fader as required. Any delays that may be necessary can be dialled in via the Aux Setup page, which is also where you can set up each output’s EQ, limiter and four notch filters, and recall presets you may have saved.
Selecting any main or aux output to reveal its graphic EQ shows the equaliser as four tabbed groups of seven faders, so there’s plenty of space to operate the controls. Notch filters show up on a separate page where each of the four has adjustable frequency and depth. Setting the phantom power is achieved by using the 48V button, whereupon you’ll see phantom-power icons for all the XLR inputs, including the combis. Touching an XLR icon or the channel name below it toggles the phantom power on or off, and the icon turns red when phantom power has been applied.
As with all the other digital mixers I’ve used, you can create multiple scenes comprising all the mixer settings and then switch from one to the other when needed. Scenes may be stored internally but may also be stored or backed up to an external USB storage device.
There’s no detailed manual with the mixer, but that’s because pressing the Info button takes you to a page offering a complete guide to the various sections. Just press the button for the subject you need explained. The default Wi-Fi password (10 digits) is also shown here and will need to be entered on your iPad to initiate a connection. There’s no mention in the manual of being able to use a second iOS device to adjust personal monitor mixes and suchlike, but as both the software and firmware is upgradable, that shouldn’t be ruled out for future versions.
On an operational note, I did find the mixer’s on-screen fader movements to be a little juddery as they move in small steps. These steps seem to be tied to the detented increments available from the data wheel, as adjusting from there does exactly the same thing. Working from the iPad, fast movements are still stepped and there’s still a fraction-of-a-second lag while the screen controls follow your finger movement. However, if you make a fine adjustment moving the fader slowly, the resolution seems to be much finer, so it seems there’s some kind of speed-related resolution switching built in.
The display shown by the mixer’s own screen and the iPad can be different, and in most cases selecting a parameter for adjustment on one screen reflects those changes on the other — though that doesn’t seem to be the case when adjusting effect parameters while in the effects screen. Either screen can adjust the effect but the other screen doesn’t show the parameter changes unless you physically select the same control on both screens prior to adjustment. At this stage I’m not sure if that is a bug or a feature. It’s certainly the case that making fine effect adjustments, such as pitch shift in cents, is best achieved using the data wheel in it’s pushed-in (fine) mode.
The usual ploy with any mixer that doesn’t have remotely adjustable pre-amp gain is to leave plenty of headroom when setting the input trims, as musicians always get louder, never quieter. To get you out of trouble if you set the gain too low, there’s digital make-up gain available for each channel, and if you do go the other way and run into clipping problems, the Gain Wizard will tell you exactly by how much to turn down the trim control to stop it happening again.
For recording, which is 24-bit at either 44.1kHz or 48kHz, there’s both a two-track mode and a multitrack mode. In the former, either the main stereo output, auxes 7/8 or auxes 9/10 can be selected as the recording source. Both 20-track sessions and a two-track mix may be recorded at the same time, where for multitrack work you’ll need a FAT32-formatted hard drive. I bought a new 1TB drive and had to reformat it to FAT32 on my Mac before it would work.
Audio may be picked up pre or post the application of any EQ and dynamic processing, and it’s also possible to switch off track arming for any track you don’t want to record. To initiate recording it is then only necessary to press the record transport button, whereupon a progress bar at the bottom of the screen shows how much time is left and also has slideable locate and play pointers, with storable locate points. To play back the recording you need to disarm the individual tracks in the record page and set the switch at the bottom of the channel strip to Track. Status ‘LEDs’ in the channel strips turn red when the channel is enabled as a recording source and green when set for playback.
If you plug the drive into a computer, each track shows up as a separate folder with WAV files inside for any separate audio regions recorded. I couldn’t find any instructions related to unmounting the external USB drive but I had no problem simply unplugging it, with the proviso that you don’t do so while it is the middle of doing something.
I soon found my way around this mixer, and the feature set is a real luxury after using typical analogue desks with their limited EQ adjustment. Most actions are no more than a couple of button presses away from the main view page, and having dynamics on every channel and graphic equalisers on every output is a big plus, as is the provision of four onboard effects, the quality of which is rather good. To do this in discrete hardware would take a rack the size of a filing cabinet. The effects comprise mainly reverbs and delays — the things you actually want when mixing — though there’s also chorus and pitch-shifting, which can be useful for subtle (or not) detuning. There were times when I felt the screens could do with a ‘Back’ button to take you back to the previous window, but hitting the Home button always brings you back to the main fader view where those little icons at the top of the screen show you all the channel and output fader positions in miniature. Having a single, physical FX Mute button makes for an easy life — something I miss not having on my own Mackie DL1608 — and as the right-hand master panel of the mixer is duplicated on the iPad screen, you can do the same thing from there.
I have no qualms over the sound quality or the standard of the effects, and while the slider operation on screen is a touch juddery it isn’t really a problem, and you soon get to ignore it. I also like having the built-in touchscreen for accessing non-performance things such as creating new effect presets or creating groups, and of course it would make a useful fallback if your iPad died.
The competition is definitely hotting up in this area, not least with Mackie’s release of the DL32R and Behringer’s existing offerings. Nonetheless, the QSC TouchMix is an attractive package for those looking for big mixer features in a small and affordable package, and it comes complete with case and Wi-Fi dongle, so all you need to supply is the iPad.
The Mackie DL1608 is an obvious competitor, as is the Behringer X32 Producer and also their X18. By the time you read this, NAMM will have happened and the list could well have grown!
- 20 usable inputs.
- Built-in touchscreen and included wireless dongle.
- Included carry case.
- Screen update a little slow and jittery.
- Gain trims have to be adjusted manually.
The QSC TouchMix is designed to appeal to bands owning their own PA systems, and can replace a whole rack of gear and a multicore. It has good onboard effects and is very easy to learn to operate.